Lawnmower versus sprinkler pipes
When you think of ways you might die, upside down in a hole reaching for sprinkler valves is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. And I’m not saying you should worry about it. However, my story might give you some insight into safety precautions.
It all started when my husband taught me how to use the zero-turn lawnmower a couple of months ago. Or maybe it started when we removed the lilac bush by the main sprinkler pipes and planted grass there? However it started, it caused a shift in the universe that led to me being home alone mowing the yard that day.
I am a cautious lawnmower because understanding machines is not one of my strong points. As I drive the mower, I am aware of every change in incline and every obstacle. Sure, I have bumped, at very slow speeds, into various things when learning to maneuver along edges or around trees, but that is part of learning to steer the thing.
That is one reason I was so shocked when I accidentally bumped into the main sprinkler pipes to our yard. The other reason I was shocked was that a fountain with the force of a fire hose immediately erupted into the air!
We probably don’t have your average suburban sprinkler set up. Our yard water comes from a community well via some 3-inch pipes. One part of that now broken portion of pipe sticks up out of the ground with the filter that we have to flush out every spring.
The valves for turning the yard water off in the fall or on in the spring are at the bottom of a hole as deep as a trash can. I know it is as deep as a trash can because about four years ago we updated those valves for easier access. My husband cut out the bottom of a trash can to line the hole around the pipes and valves. Then he attached several layers of insulating foam to the trash can lid with a screw so that nothing freezes in the winter.
The mystery of the blue valves
After turning off the lawnmower blade, I leapt off of the mower in my now soaked jeans and sweatshirt. I ran around the fence into the pasture area where the water shut off is. It took some jiggling to get the trash can lid off, all the while the gushing fountain made it sound like I was living underwater.
It was necessary to lay completely on my stomach in the mud (it had been raining for two days) and weeds of the pasture, with my chest against the rocks lining the edge of the hole. I could just barely reach the valves. Two blue valves. And I couldn’t remember which one did what.
I did a quick line of sight to the gusher and decided which blue handled valve it had to be. Then I attempted to turn it. It is very hard to get any turning leverage with your arm straight down like that. To make matters worse, I couldn’t remember which direction was off.
Directions for turning things off and on has always been a challenge for me. Not that it mattered right then. I couldn’t get it to turn either way. I was also concerned about breaking those pipes! What I didn’t know was just how much concern I should have.
The amount of water shooting up into the air was incredible. The small lake forming around the still running lawnmower was threatening to turn into a river. I had to think of other options as fast as I could.
Looking for heroes
I remembered a lever on the filter pipes that might turn things off. This was a lever I had turned many times before. I ran back up the yard and hopped on the brick bench next to the pipes to try to stay out of the flood and to have a better angle on turning the lever. Upon turning that lever, another section of pipe broke like it was made of eggshell!
At least there was still only one place water was flowing from. Like a mighty river, but just one headwaters. I had to call for help.
I made three phone calls in rapid succession. First, to my husband who was at an appointment about 10 minutes away. No answer.
While making the next call to my father, who lives five minutes away, I played a symphony on the doorbell of my very nice next-door neighbor. No one home there. My dad answered from Costco at least 20 minutes away.
Not having time to give my dad an explanation right then, I hung up on him and remembered the neighbor down the road who was in charge of that well. I was very thankful I still had his number on my new phone!
He answered right away and said he would be right over. I waited. I remembered to turn off the lawnmower engine. I looked at the gusher. I looked down the street where he should be coming from. It seemed like forever.
So, I decided I might as well give those sprinkler valves another try.
I got down on my belly again and strained as far down as I could to get better leverage on the selected blue valve. It turned! I could hear the water stop. And … I could not get out of the hole.
There I hung like Winnie the Pooh in a honey pot, head first in the sprinkler valve hole. I could feel that my body weight was definitely weighted more into the hole than on the ground above. I expected to land on my head any minute.
Since I had nothing else to do, I made subtle shifts with my legs. Finally, one of those movements worked and I was able to pull myself above ground.
I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed anything. No one had come within view the whole time it seemed. The only evidence I had of the fiasco was the one pipe broken in two places and my drenched, muddy clothing.
Unexpected ways to drown
It wasn’t long before the neighbor showed up. As he listened to my story with obvious compassion, he looked the scene over to make sure it was under control. He told me that he had valves deep like that and he also had trouble turning them, which made me feel better.
When I got to the part about getting stuck in the hole, my neighbor made a comment about possibly drowning that sent a chill down my spine. He went on to tell how he had known a strapping young dairyman who HAD broken the pipe while trying to turn a valve and, becoming stuck like I had, had drowned. I learned later that if I had turned the other blue valve, the hole would have started filling with water.
I don’t believe I will ever do that again without someone there to pull me back up. At least this day it was not my day to die in the sprinkler valve hole, and for that I am thankful.
My husband’s determination
When my husband showed up, he congratulated me for the problem solving I had done. Then his mind got busy figuring out how to make that hole safe.
First, he welded a turning handle for the valves. The skinny handles you can buy for other types of sprinkler valves apparently don’t work on these sturdy blue valves, which are designed to be turned by hand. His creation worked perfectly. However, he wanted to do more.
Next, he cut some wide diameter PVC pipe to fit around the main valve handle. (see photos below) This was half the height of the hole.
With this in place, he positioned a couple of large slabs of rock to block the area for the smaller valve. Then he got some medium-sized rock to fill in around the PVC pipe between the rocks. Again this is half the height of the hole, primarily because of the space taken up by the foam layers on the trashcan lid that keeps it all covered.
The effect is both that a body cannot go so far down into the hole AND there are hand-holds for pushing oneself up IF there is a need to reach down there. With the new welded turning handle that should not be likely.
Life is full of risks, but this was one risk that could be greatly reduced with no great cost or inconvenience. I’ll save my risk-taking for other things where the benefits outweigh the risk!